Chapter 9 – Anonymity and Free Speech

Hungarian protestor, Bernadett Szel: “We have been surrounded by [Hungarian state] security the whole time, and we weren’t allowed to talk to anyone in charge [at the state run media]. They wouldn’t even let us go up the stairs.”

NPR Reporter Joanna Kakassis: “…The government claims the protesters are spreading fake news and do not deserve the airtime. So activists are spreading the news about their next big demonstration on social media….”

– NPR “All Things Considered – Morning Edition” December 18, 2018. “In Hungary, Thousands Of Demonstrators Protest ‘Slave Law‘”


In this chapter, we examine the issues which surround anonymity in SM. On one side of the issue, free speech enables anyone to broadcast their hateful speech with impunity, with total detachment from the victims’ experiences. And victims have nearly no recourse.

For example, in a New York Times article from 2015, actor Carrie Fisher described how she dealt with cruel Twitter comments criticizing how she had aged since her first “Star Wars” appearance in 1977. One popular reader comment stated, “[Fisher] should just drop this Twitter thing because it’s a forum for the cruelty of the world. Cancel your account and no more trolls. It’s as easy as that. It will also get us all closer to realizing the very scant value of Twitter.” [ “Jim” from Colorado, 12-30-2015 ]

Is the value of Twitter as scant as “Jim” claims? Read on…

On the other side of the issue, communicating anonymously has served as a channel for dissent and organizing under conditions where, if the author were known, he or she would be at-risk of harm or persecution. In fact, a collection of American dissent-driven “Alt Gov” Twitter accounts appeared soon after Donald Trump’s election to provide a countervailing (and often trollish) pro-science voice, presumably from employees of the federal government who wished to remain anonymous.

In this week’s readings and media, you will see a scientific study about the Online Disinhibition Effect, which explains how a person’s social behavior is different when posting online anonymously. You will also review what happens on the Dark Net where anonymous illegal commerce has spawned the innovation of a trust economy based on user reviews.

When you consider the negative impact of trolling and illegal Dark Net activity, you may be wondering why there isn’t a global initiative to eliminate anonymous communication all together?

On the other side of the issue, you will examine the social and political benefits to being anonymous. There is a strong case to suggest that, without anonymity, there would be a chilling effect on the expression of free speech which, as you know, is a cornerstone of democracy.

Key Terms

Dark Net or Dark Web – An informal term that describes areas of the Internet that can only be accessed through special means such as through the TOR browser.

Pseudonym – A username that is not the user’s actual identity.

What should you be focusing on?

Your objectives in this module are:

  • Construct an argument both for and against online anonymity.
  • Evaluate the risks and tradeoffs in allowing or disallowing anonymity as a feature in your app or story ideas.

Readings & Media

Thematic narrative in this chapter

In the following readings and media, the authors will present the following themes:

  1. People behave differently when they know they are anonymous – mostly negatively or in anti-social ways.
  2. The emergence of powerful SM systems enables hate speech and harassment to proliferate on a mass scale, often by organized and mechanized efforts.
  3. The power of SM systems to inflict suffering and hate upon individuals and groups causes tension against the principles of free speech.
  4. Despite the damage caused by anonymous SM systems, there are benefits that influence mainstream SM systems.

    Required     Article: The Online Disinhibition Effect

John Suler’s research article “The Online Disinhibition Effect” describes the six psychological factors that contribute to trolling behavior.  Download PDF: “The Online Disinhibition Effect“.

Suler, John (2004). “The Online Disinhibition Effect”. CyberPsychology & Behavior 7 (3): 321–326. doi:10.1089/1094931041291295. Retrieved 10 March 2013.

    Required     Article: Regulating social media

WIRED Magazine – “Should Facebook and Twitter be Regulated Under the First Amendment?” by Lincoln Caplan. Retrieved 12-27-2017. The article describes whether SM systems should, in some cases, prevent “viewpoint discrimination” by government figures if they block other user accounts who’s opinions they do not like.

Caplan, L.. (2017, October 11). Should Facebook and Twitter be Regulated Under the First Amendment?. WIRED Magazine, Retrieved from

    Required     Article: Anonymity in social media

Laura Rogal’s “Anonymity in Social Media” summarizes the forces intertwined within the issue of anonymous / pseudonymous communication in SM. Skip the section on Copyright – focus on section II: “History of Right to Free Speech and Speaking Anonymously” and the end conclusion.  Download PDF: “Anonymity in Social Media“.

Rogal, Laura, Anonymity in Social Media (2013). Phoenix Law Review, Vol. 7, 2013. Retrieved from SSRN 12-10-2015 at:

    Required     Article: The White House demands to know the identity of a critic

The Washington Post – “The government is demanding to know who this Trump critic is. Twitter is suing to keep it a secret.”  The Department of Homeland Security demanded (via lawsuit) that Twitter reveal the name and contact information behind one of the “Alt Gov” Twitter accounts that was publishing dissenting posts about president Trump and his policies.

The authors claimed to be employed by the federal government, which suggested that the dissent is within the government itself.

Tsukayama, H. (2017, March 7). The government is demanding to know who this Trump critic is. Twitter is suing to keep it a secret. The Washington Post.

    Required     Business policy: The value of anonymity

Whisper appWhisper allows users to post their intimate feelings with total anonymity. Here are their community guidelines with references to their philosophy of anonymity. In this Huffington Post article, we see how the anonymity factor has served as a channel for expression: “LGBT Youths With Unsupportive Parents Sound Off Anonymously On Whisper App” by Curtis M. Wong Senior Editor, HuffPost Queer Voices. Retrieved December 18, 2016.

    Required     Video (14:00): Jamie Bartlett – “How the mysterious Dark Net is going mainstream”

The (free) TOR web browser is a web browser just like Firefox or Chrome, except that it provides the user access to websites with total anonymity. Through the TOR browser, you can find a burgeoning collection of illegal activity on the “Dark Net” such as drug dealing and illegal pornography.

There are also SM sites for whistleblowers and political activists where free speech can be conducted without fear of retribution. Here is more about how it works and why TOR feels their product is important.

Note – For the video below, read the transcript of the video instead!  This presentation (as crucial as it is) tends to drag a bit. Rather than watching the video, read the transcript, which I believe will be much faster for you to absorb. Since there isn’t much to see in the visual part of the presentation, you won’t miss out on anything critical.

What to look for as you watch:

  • What are the benefits of an area of the Internet where there is total anonymity?
  • How does the existence of the dark net influence how the regular Internet is designed?
  • Is there a value to this kind of anonymity in your project idea?

Bartlett, Jamie. (2015, June). How the mysterious dark net is going mainstream [ Video file ]. Retrieved from

Optional: Supplemental resources that are relevant to anonymity

Kai Visits the Dark Web” Kai Rysdall of NPR’s Marketplace plunges into the Dark Web “live” with cybersecurity researcher Stephen Cobb. They discuss how the TOR browser works, what they find, and how even in the marketplace of illegal goods and services, there are familiar instruments being used to build and sustain consumer trust and market share.

Kristian Sturt on Twitter argues for real identification on file for all social media participants. And the thread of people who disagree.

An example of anonymity: the U.S. State Department’s “Dissent Channel” which is an anonymous channel for its members to voice their concerns without fear of retribution.

“How China has censored words relating to the Tiananmen Square anniversary” – An example of how people are still able to express themselves in SM about the Tiananmen Square incident despite censorship.

“Court Says Police Chief’s Social Media Policy Violated The First Amendment” – An example of how First Amendment rights intersect with the rights of police officers’ rights to free speech on SM. Curated by James Gambone (COMM601 WN17).


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